It’s probably safe to say that “Patti Cake$” won’t be the most original movie anyone sees this year. It owes far too much of its story, themes and characters to “8 Mile” and other similar underdog stories for that to be true. It also won’t win any awards for unpredictability. From scene one, the ending and the path the script will take there are plainly obvious. What sets “Patti Cake$” apart from other movies of its type is its heart and just how genuine it feels. It’s a movie where it’s impossible not to feel for and root for its atypical cast of aspiring rap artists. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the movie is every bit as earnest as its unceasingly lovable leads.
The main story follows Patti Dombrowski (Danielle MacDonald, “Every Secret Thing”), a plus-sized white woman living in New Jersey who dreams of becoming a rapper. Between dealing with her overbearing, alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett, “Trainwreck”) and caring for her wheelchair-bound grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, “The Double”), she writes her own music and plans to record it with her best friend, Jheri (Siddharth Dhanajay in his feature debut), in the hopes of escaping her impoverished life.
Again, the lifeblood of “Patti Cake$” is the main cast. MacDonald is endearing from the start as Patti (known by the moniker “Killa P”), a character with big dreams and the guts to reach for them, even as everything around her seems to be telling her to stop. Like the best underdog performances, MacDonald layers the optimism with an underlying tragedy, and Patti is more realistic – and therefore relatable – for it. It’s Everett, however, who ends up being the highlight as Patti’s mother, Barb, who once shared her daughter’s dream of making it big in the music industry. Playing Barb with a mixture of brokenness, cruelty and real love, Everett creates a character whose relationship with her daughter may rank as one of the best and ultimately rewarding of its kind this year.
As is befitting a movie that is, at least in part, a musical, the songs are fantastic. If nothing else, audiences should walk away from “Patti Cake$” with an appreciation for just what a talented rapper MacDonald is. All of the best scenes of the movie are built around the music, whether it’s the first recording session where Patti, Jheri and Patti’s scene-stealing grandmother team up with reclusive anarchist Basterd (Mamadou Athie, “The Get Down”) to produce their first track “PBNJ” or the emotional, energetic finale. The film may well be worth seeing for the soundtrack alone.
Unfortunately, without the music it occasionally feels like the movie lacks a backbone or glue to hold the whole thing together. The editing loses its sense of rhythm, particularly during overcut dialogue scenes, and the cinematography — which trades in psychedelic rap video imagery at the best of times — tends to go for the increasingly popular "Moonlight" look. Many scenes are shot in handheld, shallow focus close-ups in an attempt to mimic the gorgeous, Oscar-nominated cinematography of last year's Best Picture winner, but as in many other movies, it's more distracting here than anything else. It’s hard to feel for what’s happening onscreen when there are times you can barely tell what you’re supposed to be looking at.
Still, “Patti Cake$” is charming enough — both on the basis of its leads and its music — that it should be seen. It is a movie that has been done before and will undoubtedly be done again, but what problems it has are more than outweighed by the care and love that went into crafting this particular story. Other underdog movies should take note.